Franchement: PM Stephen Harper and French Canadians

What’s striking about the claim that Harper has done more than any PM for French is only partly that it’s so easy to disprove
Auditor General Michael Ferguson speaks about a report on the Administration of the House of Commons and Senate in Ottawa, ON Wednesday, June 13, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Four of Jean Chrétien’s six Supreme Court appointees were francophones, including some from outside Quebec; the two anglophones, Fish and Binnie, were Montreal-born McGill graduates who had no trouble in French. At one point Chrétien’s Chief Justice (Antonio Lamer), Clerk of the Privy Council (Jocelyne Bourgon), Chief of Staff (Jean Pelletier), and some large number of his cabinet ministers were francophones. Chrétien’s favourite cabinet minister, Stéphane Dion, introduced an Action Plan for Official Languages in 2003; Paul Martin extended it in 2005.

I belabour all this because Stephen Harper responded to some criticism in a year-end interview with TVA by saying: “As prime minister, I think I’ve given more space to French than any prime minister in the history of the country.” (He began the sentence with a franchement, frankly, that gave me this post’s headline.)

The claim is counterintuitive. Harper appointed a unilingual auditor general who still cannot answer questions in French about how well he is learning French; a short-lived bilingual communications director, Angelo Persichilli, whose first and second languages did not include French; and two unilingual Supreme Court justices, Rothstein and Moldaver. Manon Cornellier, at the bottom of this blog post, takes further issue with Harper’s claim to be a particularly francophone-friendly prime minister.

I don’t want to paint the PM as a blue meanie who hates French, because that would be ludicrous. His personal effort to learn French has been absolutely extraordinary; I don’t know about Charles Tupper or John Abbott, but except for the utterly bicultural Brian Mulroney, he’s now the most fluently bilingual anglophone PM of my lifetime. Conservative cabinet and caucus members have taken the hint; the brightest and most ambitious among them take care to learn French well. James Moore does a fine job as official languages minister. The Official Languages Commissioner, Graham Fraser, meets the PM every year to discuss his annual reports. It’s a formality, but a perfectly decent gesture. Fraser’s predecessors had no such regular meetings with Martin and Chrétien.

What’s striking about the claim that Harper has done more than any PM for French is only partly that it’s so easy to disprove. Here’s columnist Douglas Fisher describing Trudeau’s Ottawa in 1983:

Of the 36 members of the cabinet, 15 are French-language-in-the-home types; of 27 parliamentary secretaries, 13 are French; of the 21 chairmanships of House committees, nine are held by French; of the 145-odd Liberal MPs, some 95 are French-language types…

What’s more surprising is that Harper would bother to claim he’s out-Frenched his Liberal predecessors. The paragraph I just quoted comes from Peter Brimelow’s book The Patriot Game, National Dreams & Political Realities, one of the most influential texts in the modern history of (predominantly Western Canadian) conservatism. The whole point of that book was that under Trudeau, English Canada had bent itself into pretzels in a doomed attempt to accommodate French Quebec. Harper’s biographer William Johnson describes Harper making bulk purchases of the book after its 1986 publication to distribute to friends.

It will not come as news that Harper has substantially moderated his political actions since he became serious about forming a government. At their best, his attempts to make room for French in his government go well beyond what most people would have expected of a government led by a conservative Albertan, maybe especially this one. His journey from Brimelowism to something close to the Trudeau-Clark-Mulroney-Chrétien heritage of official bilingualism and a largely bicultural official Ottawa is a fascinating one. That he rationalizes that journey by exaggerating its extent is what card players would call a “tell.”